Fall aspen leaves and tall spruce accent the Tutshi River as it tumbles down to the lake. Andrew Cremata

The Fall


By ANDREW CREMATA

It’s fall – the time of year when we finally get to hear those three little words we’ve been longing for.

“Last ship day.”

This time of year you can enjoy the best of both worlds – fishing and catching. The distinction lies in the details, as the former does not always guarantee the latter. One might wonder if you have a choice between the two, why you wouldn’t always choose the catching.

The answer is simple – catching is good for the freezer and fishing is good for everything else. Fishing is a variety of sport, and one of the best parts about participating in sport is that it strengthens resiliency. While the successes of catching build pride and desire, only failure can test character and one’s ability to learn from it. Fishing is more like practice for real life, where failure comes with a far greater cost.

And within the brief sliver of time between the end of tourist season and the onset of winter, there are fine opportunities to wander Skagway’s shorelines with no real purpose in mind. Sure, there are fish to be caught, but from year to year they are always in different spots and in different numbers.

There are probably Dolly Varden around, maybe in the Skagway River, Pullen Pond or in the inlet. It’s likely there are some coho salmon somewhere, but I haven’t found them yet. Strangely, there hasn’t been any chum salmon run of note this year, but it’s possible they are somewhere I haven’t been. I am certain there are brook trout in Lower Lake, but the odds of me hiking up there are pretty slim.

What you’re left with is plenty of river, ocean and lakes where you can take your time and actually fish. There is no rush and no worry with this type of endeavor, and you never know what you’re going to find. The thrill lies in the search, isolation and that autumn peace of mind.

I walked the Skagway River last week without a fishing pole. The idea wasn’t to actually fish, but to scope out the river to seek out some places that might hold salmon or Dollies. Every season the river changes, so it’s unlikely any spot will be productive from one year to the next. A couple of days later, I took a few hours out of the day to try those newfound spots, but the fish weren’t there. Either I was in the wrong spot or a little early. It’s even possible there won’t be any such fish this year. It doesn’t really matter because this is the fall.

Some years ago I was scoping out a trout hole with a partner. The plan was to check out the water, so we would have an idea as to what we should bring later in the day. From our campsite we walked the shoreline about a mile over loose rock and gravel with beer in hand. It was a sunny day in early June – one of the first days that wearing short sleeves was possible.

Coming around a sharp jetty, the spot came into view. A large stream spilled out from a steep ridge and divided in two before emptying into the lake. On the far side of the creek, beyond both flows of the delta, there appeared to be some kind of animal lying motionless in the fast-flowing water.

At first glance I thought it was a small bear – always a worry in the back of my mind. When it didn’t move for over a minute, we began to debate whether it was animal at all, or if it were dead. That’s when it stirred.

It was subtle at first, but then the reality of the situation began to sink in. It was a man. He was face down in the water, struggling to push himself up, only to slip back down again. He appeared to yell at one point, but it was impossible to tell over the steady roar of the creek.

I immediately pulled off my shoes, socks and pants and waded through the first section of creek. It was ice cold and deep, but narrow across. The second section beyond the split seemed less cold, but the rocks were larger and slippery, so I had to retreat and grab a piece of driftwood to steady my advance.

As I got closer to the man, more of the situation came into focus. He was lying still again; face down in the water, a fishing rod by his side. The sound of a dog barking took shape against the din of the flowing water. My legs were numb, and I felt like I was moving too slow.

When I reached his body I was uncertain if he were even alive. My mind raced with the thought that it would be pretty bad luck to lose a life-struggle when so close to actually being saved.

As I knelt to roll him up onto the shore he pushed his head out of the water and gasped. I pulled him to an upright position, mostly out of the water. He looked very old, but tough, tall, and rugged in the way people who live in the north often are. He was shivering, his ankle badly bent, but otherwise he was talkative and seemed all right.

He told me his name and said he was from Tagish. He asked me to help him to his truck where he had a dry set of clothes. I lifted him up and we made our way to his rig. It wasn’t far, but it took a while because the man was quite tall and had most of his weight against me.

As we walked he said, “I slipped and fell in the creek and just couldn’t get up. I guess I’m getting too old to be out here by myself. I’m 81. It’s a damn shame too, eh? The grayling are really biting today.”

I noticed the dog then. It was a little yapper tied to a tree that seemingly wanted to tear out my throat. I got the man to his truck, an old Toyota minivan, and told him I would walk back around to my campsite and get my car to drive him to the clinic in Whitehorse, or home to Tagish. While changing clothes he repeatedly refused my persistent offer, and it became apparent that no amount of bickering was going to alter his determination.

I grabbed his fly rod, put it in his rig, and got the dog untied from the tree. The little pup immediately ran back to his master in an obvious state of relief. I asked him one more time if he wouldn’t wait for me to give him a ride, but he shook his head and negotiated his damaged ankle into the cab.

“Can you do me one more favor?” he asked, to which I nodded.

“Can you go over there under that bush where the dog was tied up? I have a stringer of grayling there I don’t want to leave behind.”

You have to admire a man with his priorities in order.

Fish This! will return here again in April. In the meantime we will be working with Andrew on a collection of his columns for a book due for release in the coming year.